Key thinker: Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)
Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)
Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Bomfree) was born into slavery in Dutch-speaking Ulster County in upstate New York sometime around 1797 (https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/sojourner-truth). She remained enslaved for most of her early adult life. In 1827, a year before slavery was officially abolished in New York, Truth and her infant daughter found refuge with the abolitionist Van Wagenen family, who bought her freedom. The family also helped Truth sue to regain custody of her son, who had been illegally sold into slavery in Alabama (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sojourner-truth).
In 1829, Truth moved to New York to take up domestic employment in the household of the preacher and missionary Elijah Pierson (https://www.biography.com/activist/sojourner-truth). Since her childhood, Truth had claimed to hear voices and have visions, which she attributed to her close connection to God (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sojourner-Truth). By the early 1830s, she had become convinced that it was her religious calling to travel the country speaking out against the injustices of slavery and preaching the gospel (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sojourner-truth). In 1843, she changed her name from Isabella Bomfree to Sojourner Truth to reflect this calling.
In 1844, Truth joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community whose members shared a commitment to the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, pacifism, and religious tolerance (see 2.2.3. Sojourner Truth). In Northampton, Truth was first introduced to other leading abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison (see Key thinker: William Lloyd Garrison in Chapter 30 on Frederick Douglass) and Frederick Douglass. Truth quickly rose to prominence alongside other formerly enslaved activists, like Douglass or Harriett Tubman, who had become popular abolitionist speakers (https://www.biography.com/activist/sojourner-truth).
Truth was an advocate for universal suffrage, which brought her into contact with leading nineteenth-century suffragettes like Elizabeth Candy Stanton, author of the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881) (see Key Thinker: Elizabeth Candy Stanton). During the Civil War, Truth’s organising efforts were aimed at assisting the Union army in its recruitment and funding drive. She spent the later years of her life in Michigan focussing on issues such as segregation in transport or unemployment that formerly enslaved Black refugees from the South faced in the North (https://en.unesco.org/womeninafrica/sojourner-truth/biography).
The many obituaries that were published when Truth died are a testament to the important role she played in the feminist and abolitionist movements of her time (see 2.2.3. Sojourner Truth). Sojourner Truth died in 1883. She was eighty-six years old.
Much of what we know about Truth’s life is derived from Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave (1850), an autobiography that she dictated to Olive Gilbert, a fellow member of the Northampton Association, because she could not read or write (see 2.2.3. Sojourner Truth). The proceeds of the book allowed Truth to buy a house and support herself. While her autobiography remains an important document of Truth’s life and activism, transcripts of her speeches are considered less accurate (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/sojourner-truth).
Truth was an accomplished public speaker whose ability to move as well as interrogate her audiences has been well documented (see 2.5. Sojourner Truth’s Speeches). In May 1851, Truth delivered her famous speech, ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. A slightly inaccurate and embellished transcript of the speech was published by the white abolitionist Frances Gage in the National Anti-Slavery Standard twelve years later. Gage’s transcript echoed racist prejudices about Black women’s education and sexuality by falsely attributing a Southern accent to Truth and claiming that she had fifteen children instead of five (https://www.thesojournertruthproject.com/compare-the-speeches).
A more accurate version of the speech was transcribed by Truth’s good friend Marius Robinson, who attended the convention in Ohio. In the speech, Truth challenges ‘the cult of true womanhood’, a conservative response to the suffragette movement which argued that women’s confinement to the domestic sphere made them pure and morally superior (see Key Concept: The Cult of True Womanhood). The cult of true womanhood implied that only white women were truly women because Black women, who were often depicted as masculine and suited to hard labour, deviated from the womanly ideal (see 2.5.1. The Representation of Black Women).
In asking her rhetorical question (‘Ain’t I a Woman?’), Truth who, in her own words, had ‘as much muscle as any man’ and could ‘do as much work as any man’, was interrogating this limited view of womanhood and questioning why she had been excluded from it. By using her life experiences as a Black woman to shed light on the racist prejudices harboured by white, middle-class suffragettes who had never experienced the kind of hard labour that Truth had been performing throughout her life.
Truth showed how embodied ways of knowing—her experiences as an enslaved person, domestic labourer, or mother, for example—could uncover universal truths. Her philosophical method foreshadowed the emergence of feminist ‘standpoint epistemology’, which argues that oppressed people have a specialized knowledge through which they interpret their lived reality, and that this knowledge helps them fight back against their own oppression (Collins, 2008 & Harding, 2004). Truth’s epistemology stands in marked contrast to that of Plato (see Chapter 2 on Plato), who argues that true knowledge can only be acquired through abstract reasoning.
There are, however, some parallels between the styles of reasoning that Plato’s Socrates employs and Truth’s speeches. Both were wandering teachers who believed that education could improve society and lead to a better understanding of the truth. Moreover, their relentless questioning of prevailing beliefs and orthodoxies served to undermine the validity of power structures that were often seen as simply given (see 2.4. Socrates and Sojourner Truth: Knowledge and Education). In this sense, they were both philosophers whose work sought to contribute to the improvement and overall well-being of society.
Gilbert, O. Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1998), ed. Nell Irving Painter. New York: Penguin Books.
Collins, Patricia Hill (2008) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Harding, S. (2004). The feminist standpoint theory reader: Intellectual and political controversies. Routledge.